After a two and a half year long battle with cancer, New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain passed away on Wednesday. He was 69 years old.
His longtime friend Lenny Kaye confirmed the news on his official Facebook page. Sylvain’s wife, Wanda O’Kelley Mizrahi, also penned a tribute: “Though he fought it valiantly, yesterday he passed away from this disease. While we grieve his loss, we know that he is finally at peace and out of pain. Please crank up his music, light a candle, say a prayer and let’s send this beautiful doll on his way.”
Born in Cairo on Valentine’s Day 1951, Sylvain Mizrahi’s family fled Egypt and landed in New York in the early 1960s, escaping escalating anti-Semitism.
“His onstage joy, his radiant smile as he chopped at his guitar, revealed the sense of wonder he must have felt at the age of 10, emigrating from his native Cairo with his family in 1961, the ship pulling into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time,” Kaye wrote.
After befriending original drummer Billy Murcia at school, the two ran a clothing company called “Truth and Soul,” which helped define his fashion sense and would play a role in the Dolls’ groundbreaking look. Sylvain joined the New York Dolls in 1972, ushering in the punk and glam movements with their aggressive androgyny and snarling guitar licks. The ever-charismatic David Johansen fronted the outfit, Johnny Thunders kicked it up a notch on guitar, and Sylvain served as the band’s lynchpin with his own stamp of rhythmic power. The Dolls influenced everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Ramones to Bowie, nabbing cheap women’s clothes from LES shops and letting it all out on stage with unbridled passion.
“The New York Dolls heralded the future, made it easy to dance to. From the time I first saw their poster appear on the wall of Village Oldies in 1972, advertising a residency at the Mercer Hotel up the street, throughout their meteoric ascent and shooting star flame-out, the New York Dolls were the heated core of this music we hail, the band that makes you want to form a band,” said Kaye.
Unfortunately, as their star rose in NYC and London, the band was plagued with heroin addiction and inner squabbling, and the Dolls’ legendary chaos proved unsustainable. Sylvain played on the group’s two 1970s albums, New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon, and stayed with them until their breakup in 1976. Johnny Thunders died after years of heroin addiction in 1991, drummer Jerry Nolan a year later. Sylvain would continue to collaborate with Johansen on his solo work.
Sylvain went on to form a band called the Criminals, releasing 1950s-style tunes and later, a more power-pop sound with the Teardrops. In 1998 he released Sleep Baby Doll. In 2oo4 Johansen and Sylvain reunited the remaining Dolls. The unexpected death of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane put a wrench in their plans, but they managed to release three more albums before the final curtain call. Sylvain performed with his final band with Cheetah Chrome, the Batusis, until the end, including a 2016 performance at SXSW. Sylvain’s personal stamp is all over the glam and punk map; most notably, Japan frontman David Sylvian adopted his stage name in honour of Sylvain.
David Johansen posted a final tribute on his Instagram: “My best friend for so many years, I can still remember the first time I saw him bop into the rehearsal space/bicycle shop with his carpetbag and guitar straight from the plane after having been deported from Amsterdam, I instantly loved him. I’m gonna miss you old pal. I’ll keep the home fires burning. au revoir. Syl mon vieux copain.”
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Sleep, baby Doll.